The Olympics are an epic display of rivalry where years of competition between athletes culminate to a single moment of winner takes all. We’ve seen some great rivalries in Rio, Michael Phelps and Chad Le Clos in the 200 metre butterfly, and the British and Australian men’s cycling team pursuits, but can this kind of competition help motivate the ‘Average Joe'? The biological and psychological responses that occur from rivalry are not unique to the herculean contests seen in the Olympics, it’s part of human nature. And we can use this to help motivate our every day efforts of becoming slimmer, fitter or stronger. Here’s how.
What is rivalry?
To figure out how we can use rivalry to motivate us, we need to understand what it is exactly. It’s more than just competition, it’s a relationship with another individual where there is a psychological edge outside the actual pursuit itself. We see this in the Olympics often where athletes will try to bait their competition like Bradley Wiggins of the British cycling team quoting Australians as “the worst winners in the world and the worst losers in the world”. Oh no he didn’t. Whilst we see this rivalry often play out in the international sporting arena, it also happens at the grass roots level, just simply playing against the same individual or team a few times creates the atmosphere for it. However, few people consciously use this as an opportunity to improve, motivate or learn.
Do we shy away or rise to it?
For a lot of people, the confrontation that occurs from rivalry can produce a negative response, however this is very much a reflection of attitude. Jonathan Fader, sports psychologist and author of Life as Sport states that ‘People who are successful see a difficult situation as a challenge, not a threat’. Having that view opens up possibilities for learning, rather than inadvertently creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. When confronted with a challenge, thoughts of “I can’t do that” can only lead to a dead end. However, replacing those thoughts with “How can I do that?” and following them through, can lead to behaviours that result in improvement. The expression of "rising to a challenge" is supposed to conjure images of breaking through barriers once believed to be unbreakable. And this is equally applicable to the average joe beating their work colleagues in a 5km, as it is to athletes winning gold.
It’s our nature
Human beings are competitive by nature. We’ve been competing for food, shelter, and partners before we could intellectually perceive it. Po Bonson and Ashley Merrimen, in their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing argue that we are born and conditioned to compete, through aspects of our genetic make-up, like age and gender. Professor Robert Deaner, psychologist at Grand Valley State University of Michigan conducted a study1 of 1,147 long distance runners and surveyed their motivation to compete and amount of training, and found that there were significantly higher levels of competitiveness in males compared to females. Whilst competitiveness in females is not uncommon, it would appear to be less predominant. Should we deny an aspect of our human nature, when it could in fact boost our ability to perform? Regularly tapping into an innate response will boost our drive for fitness results.
Using technology to foster friendly rivalry
In today’s growing world of social media and connectedness, rivalry can be fostered right from your smart devices. Take the Apple Watch for example. In the next upgrade, they’re releasing a new feature in their ‘Activity’ app where you can instantly comment on your friends' and family's fitness related goals. The app will even have comments ready to go like ‘You’re going down’ to encourage some friendly smack talk. Whilst you need to have an Apple Watch for this, it’s a sign that major firms see the benefit of rivalry to fitness, as well as to their bottom line. Another example is the popular cycling app ‘Strava’. Strava allows local routes to be created called segments, where people’s times can be recorded directly against them, and leaderboards established. How can you not get competitive on the route back to your own street?
Ever since the first Olympics, it has been a reminder to the everyday person, what the human body and mind is capable of. Whilst running 100 metres in less then 10 seconds is beyond most of us, the rivalry that athletes experience and the motivation it evokes, is accessible by all. We can take advantage of it by using readily accessible technology, harnessing our own human nature and reframing our perceptions to push us to become fitter and stronger.
Are you one to back down from a rival’s challenge or rise up and meet them head on? Comment below on your experiences!
1Deaner RO, Lowen A, Rogers W, Saksa E. (2015) Does the sex difference in competitiveness decrease in selective sub-populations? A test with intercollegiate distance runners. PeerJ 3:e884
Michael Dang is the blogger behind gymmotivationquote.com, inspiring gym goers to stick to their habits and to reach their fitness goals. When he’s not helping people with their fitness, he’s surfing or gyming. Follow him on twitter